A Firefighter Off-duty Digs Out An Avalanche Victim And Remains To Help Rescuers For Hours

COUNTY OF SALT LAKE — A firefighter who was off duty when he heard a backcountry skier who was caught in an avalanche screaming for help says he couldn’t have been in a better position or at a better time. As both the person doing the saving and the person being saved battled the cold, the rescue mission turned into a difficult ordeal that lasted more than seven hours. It is possible that no one else would have heard those pleas for assistance if not for the fact that firefighter who was nearby.

Tom Elbrecht, a firefighter for the Unified Fire Authority, shared his plans to go skiing in Neffs Canyon with his dog. “My plan was to go skiing with my dog,” Elbrecht said.

Elbrecht was assessing the stability and quality of the snow on the canyon’s gentler slopes as he made his way through the area. Tom Elbrecht, a firefighter with the Unified Fire Authority, was off duty yesterday when he dug a backcountry skier out of an avalanche and cared for him while they waited for rescue. Elbrecht did this while the skier was in the backcountry.

As the off-duty firefighter made his way up the mountain, he heard a noise that, at first, he mistook for the sound of either an animal or skiers conversing with one another. As he came closer, he could hear someone screaming “help!”

Elbrecht said that he had picked up a clear call for assistance coming from the direction of the hill’s summit. He hollered, and the skier who was buried in the avalanche continued to yell for help. Therefore, Elbrecht continued to draw nearer. He observed the slide path and the debris field, which stretched for a couple hundred feet, and realized that he needed to proceed with extreme caution.

Off-duty firefighter digs out avalanche victim, stays during hours-long rescue
Off-duty firefighter digs out avalanche victim, stays during hours-long rescue

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“I happened to run into the victim. He was trapped between the tree and himself. He was laid to rest. He was wrapped around the tree, and the only parts of him that were visible were his head and his arms. Elbrecht dragged the skier out of the snow, evaluated his condition, and then called for assistance. He started by talking to his wife about it because she was already aware of his intentions. She emerged as an essential cog in the continuing rescue operation.

He constructed a makeshift bench for the injured skier and stayed in close quarters with him for more than nine hours while they waited for help. The firefighter added, “I gave the victim my extra down jacket, my vest, and my jacket.” The firefighter also handed the victim his jacket.

During the waiting phase of the rescue, the soldiers faced the risk of an avalanche. Elbrecht stated that he and his team “just tried to keep the situation upbeat and keep the patient talking to me” in order to achieve the best possible results.

According to the director of the Utah Avalanche Center, Mark Staples, the survivor got extremely lucky because steep slopes, especially at low elevations, are perilous right now. “As soon as you leave the trailhead, there’s a good potential that you can start an avalanche on a steep slope,” said Staples. “The probability of this happening increases as the slope gets steeper.” At other times of the year, it is necessary for you to travel further up the mountain. At this very moment, if you take even one step forward, you are going to be met with avalanches.

Not just backcountry skiers and snowmobilers, but all hikers should exercise caution, according to his advice. “Avalanches are probable in the mountains, and especially right now, they are likely,” he said. “If you’re in the mountains, near steep, snow-covered slopes, avalanches are possible.”

The men were eventually extracted from the mountain after seven o’clock in the evening.  “Enormous weight off our shoulders,” said Elbrecht, “and I think for everybody else as well, since the overall sentiment was that we all wanted to do the right thing, but without inflicting more suffering and without bringing more harm to him.”

Elbrecht stated that before venturing out into the backcountry, he always checks the avalanche forecast and stays away from steep slopes on days like today.

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